The Amazing History of Anesthesia

David Kipre

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It is often claimed that the first anesthesia was performed by God, when he put Adam into a deep sleep in order to take his rib and create his mate Eve. Far from the anaesthesia known today, the current thought of anaesthesia is more of an important medical practice for surgical operations than a simple divine sleep.

From the ancient Greeks to the leading scientists who have experienced the practice, this is the almost terrifying history of anaesthesia.

1- Anaesthesia: Suppressing pain first

Anesthesia : (word of Greek origin) – an ( to deprive ) and aïsthêsis ( sensitivity )

The term anaesthesia was coined by Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American professor of physiology and anatomy, in a letter to one of his colleagues. By this he meant a situation in which: the individual is in a state of unconsciousness created by inhalation of gas, in order to reduce the pain suffered during surgical operations.

In Greek histories, mention is made of a people of the Black Sea, the Scythians, who induced this state of half-death by inhaling hemp, or of a wine made from mandrake that allowed soldiers to feel no pain when they had to be treated. In any case, it should be noted that these practices are quite different from the anaesthesia practised nowadays, which seemed unfeasible.

They also used methods such as: bloodletting, ice, “distraction” by irritation of a needle, carotid and nerve compression, the blow of a wooden hammer on the head wearing a leather helmet.

Most of these practices were very atypical, not to say bizarre.

In some cases, children were asphyxiated by strangulation before being circumcised (Assyrian practice). In other cases, hemp was burned and inhaled by the patients, who then forgot everything that had happened to them. Some even used opium juice to calm neuroses and to provide pleasant dreams.

In China, between 110 and 207 A.D., doctors tied the hands and feet of the patient, then hit him on the head or drew blood to make him unconscious. This was before the advent of a famous warrior by the name of Hua Tuo who, before undergoing surgery, was said to have drunk Mandrake juice.

2- A dream come true: John Snow

Born in 1813, the inventor of the pulmotor, a device designed to treat asphyxia in infants, set out to conquer the realm of anaesthesia. He publishes a book on the 4 stages of ether anaesthesia, the 4th stage corresponding to the surgical level.

For him, since ether reduces cerebral activity, then the motor coordination of the cerebellum and finally of the body and the spinal cord, its non-abusive use will thus allow to proceed to the various most daring surgical operations of his time.

His greatest work was the delivery of Prince Leopold II, which he successfully accomplished by applying chloroform to Queen Victoria in 1853. He also invented a mask with a valve that allowed the administration of additional air to lighten the anaesthesia.

Ether, used for the first time in France in 1847, marked the advent of painless surgery. Ether, still called “sweet vitriol” by its users, was used for a long time in mixtures with opium to relieve patients of their pain. It was the first formal anaesthetic used in the world.

The first intravenous tests date back to 1872, followed by inhalation anaesthesia based on chloroform and ether. In the 1890s, halothane was synthesized and became the most widely used inhalation anaesthetic. Cocaine in 1885, was used as an anaesthetic by Professor William Halsted during an operation in Baltimore, who used it to block the inferior alveolar nerve. Epidural and spinal anaesthesia developed from the 19th century.

The history of epidural anaesthesia comes to us from France: Sicard and Cathelin, 1901. Although it is not used for surgery, it opens the way to locoregional anaesthesia which will then be abandoned for general anaesthesia, now used by surgeons. Less toxic anaesthesia can now be prolonged, which opens the field to surgical operations that were previously impossible. After the Second World War, anaesthesia becomes an autonomous medical discipline, together with resuscitation.

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